A Tricky (But Important) Lesson

I decided to take a risk in one of my classes a few weeks ago. I’ve taught Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for many years to my Honors 10 English students and it generally gets a good response. Students appreciate the storytelling, note the patterns with other dystopian stories they’re familiar with, and generally connect quite well with the major ideas.

But helping them draw the connections between a book published in the 50s through to how those issues may look somewhat different today has been a bit of a struggle. In past years, I’d had them do some research on contemporary technologies and the possible dangers they may pose. I’d also had them write a short essay on a particular instance of book banning (they usually picked some older book, or something to do with fascism, etc.). This was all fine, the students did well, then they moved on.

I also began noticing at other times in the school year, that my students were having a lot of conversations about canceling. Some would joke about canceling each other, some would talk about a musician they wouldn’t listen to anymore, or debate a recent instance on social media or the film industry. This cropped up enough times that I determined I’d have to incorporate this topic more intentionally at some point in the future.

With my principal’s permission, I decided to have an in-depth discussion in my class about censorship, book banning, and cancel culture. The rise of canceling over the last decade, the swathe of book bans in US schools and communities in recent years, and the evolving discussion about free speech on internet forums meant I wanted to engage with Bradbury’s ideas but in the 21st century. My principal encouraged my efforts but said I should let the parents know ahead of time, explaining my purpose and rationale.

I laid out the guiding questions for our discussion after making sure we had clear and workable definitions for ‘censorship’, ‘canceling’, and ‘banning’:

1. In what ways are the motivations behind recent book bans and the increase of ‘canceling’ similar? In what ways are they different?
2. How are the motivations behind each addressing legitimate fears and concerns?
3. What are the dangers of banning and canceling on a society and its ability to discuss difficult topics?
4. How can we engage with others who hold radically different worldviews from our own in a respectful and engaged way?

I’m pleased to say that my students had an extended, productive, two-day discussion about these topics, bringing in some specific examples they had encountered, coming up with hypothetical scenarios, occasionally disagreeing with each other, but always being kind and respectful. What happened in my classroom over those two days both reaffirmed the already high value I place on teaching difficult topics and also that we need to teach our students how to engage respectfully and in nuanced ways with those topics.

Their assignment was to write an essay in which they chose any recent instance that involved censorship of any sort (I got movie bans, book bans, twitter cancelings, news censorship in Russia, and so many more), a direct connection to Bradbury’s text, and their own personal position on how we should navigate these tricky, inter-related topics. And their papers blew me away. These 15-16 year olds presented careful, nuanced, wise, and thought-provoking positions and I only wish more adults would do the same.

This exercise has reaffirmed in me the value of teaching complexity and difficulty. I believe we as teachers (especially English teachers) need to allay any fears that we’re trying to tell students what to think. In my initial conversation with my principal, in my explanation to the parents, and in the lead-up to the discussion, I made it very clear that I in no way wanted to get the students to think what I think. My goal is always to get them to grapple with something difficult and determine what they think about it. How else do we teach critical thinking but to give them the fodder, tools, and space to practice?

Which is why the classroom is exactly the right place for controversial topics. We should be teaching books with difficult, challenging, even provocative content, because this is how we educate our students to grapple with the beautiful complexity of the world around them. We can’t just teach stuff we agree with, but need to also teach texts we as teachers don’t like, or by authors that lived deeply problematic lives (and boy are there a lot of those around). We don’t need to shield our students from the ugly dangers of the world—we need to guide them in the steps of dealing with those things, allow them to take ownership of their own thinking, and give them the agency to make their own choices.

I’m really proud of how well my students handled this. This coming generation care a whole lot about their world and are hungry to make their mark on it. We just need to make sure we provide them with the tools to do so. I’m so curious to see what their responses to Ayn Rand’s Anthem will be in a few weeks time.


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